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Alias: Phase One

"What was wrong with the black one? Do you think it's comfortable wearing clothes like this?"

Holy series-changing episode, Batman! I said "Whoa!" out loud more than once, and I think my jaw actually, literally dropped at the end. When they decide it's time to shake things up, they sure don't fool around.

SD-6 is history, and Sloane has brought down the entire Alliance. What a shock. I mean, SD-6 and the Alliance were at the center of the entire plot of this show until this point. And that wasn't all. Just about every major plot element got twisted and shaken up:

1. Jack got caught by Sloane's replacement and exposed as a double agent; he wound up back in the torture chamber. Looks like the rift between Sydney and Jack is now gone; she was pretty upset about him getting caught, wasn't she?

2. In order to rescue Jack, Sydney told Dixon the truth, and he was pissed. And who could blame him? (Carl Lumbly did some excellent work here. And Jennifer Garner was terrific.)

3. After dancing around it for far too long, Vaughn finally brought his feelings for Syd out into the open. How about that kiss, huh? How conscientious of both of them to wait until their official mission was complete before locking lips!

4. And speaking of locked lips, poor Francie! I liked Francie, and I'm bummed that she's dead. How long can a false Francie stay unexposed, especially since the real Francie and Will started smooching? Is the actress being written out of the show at the end of this year, and are they letting her go out with a bang? And by the way, Sydney told Will to get Francie and leave town. What was Francie still doing in the restaurant?

All this, and I haven't even mentioned the server-47-on-the-airplane sequence, which was extremely cool – the outfits, the explosive decompression, the parachute, and even Vaughn, jealous and worried and suffering from an overdose of aftershave.

As much as I was enjoying the (way too short) guest spot by Rutger Hauer, I was very much aware that Sloane was unaccounted for... but I was still surprised at the end, when we discovered that Sloane was behind the whole thing. What also surprised me was that Sloane knew about Jack and Sydney being double agents. How long has he known?

This was like an end-of-the-series episode, but this isn't the end, thank goodness. I can't wait to see where it goes from here. What is Phase Two? Bringing down the CIA? Could that be why Irina turned herself in?

Bits and pieces:

— The server was number 47 again, that magic Rambaldi number. And it was even on a 747.

— Lena Olin wasn't in this episode.


Sark: "When I met with Geiger this morning, I left his office feeling as unstrung as you look."
Sydney: "Just so you know, I'm fully strung."

Weiss: (to Vaughn) "There's no way that guy smells as good as you."

Geiger: "Both your files... there were so many red flags, I thought I was in a Russian airport."

This week's...

... itinerary: "Over the Atlantic."

... hot look: Do I even have to spell it out? I bet that fans who are hot for Jennifer Garner had to put their tongues back in their mouths after that opening scene. (Speaking of which, it's too bad that Vaughn didn't get to see her in either of those outfits.)

What a slam-bang episode. Five out of four spies,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. I know the opening scene was designed for the post-superball slot, but it's my idea of tv heaven. I know countless other shows did that whole provocative first scene thing for the superball crowd (grey's comes to mind) but Alias gave it its own twist and that's always appreciated.
    I'm grateful we got 3 more years of Sydney after this, but as far as i'm concerned if they had to end the series, this episode would have made the perfect ending (save for the murdered Francie part)

  2. This episode really does have one of the most memorable TV openings ever! Jennifer really looks amazing and this is all coupled with the fact that Phase One is one of the strongest and bravest hours of television I've ever seen!
    I'm pretty sure practically all Alias fans assumed Sd-6 would last until the series finale. That was the whole basis of the show after all! It was really mind boggling what JJ Abrams did with this episode! Sometimes I'm sure many of us wonder if it was too soon and if the show suffered a bit without Sd-6 but it was undoubtedly a writing decision unlike any other!

    Plus after this, Alias overused the whole "3 days earlier" gimmick which now seems to be used in practically every show on earth like once a season and never to this effect!

  3. In her landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey explains the male gaze in western art, particularly film: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female form which is styled accordingly…the presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to…freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” In Ways of Seeing, John Berger simplifies this concept: “[M]en act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (emphasis his).

    In its simplest iteration, the male gaze is created by a work of art (painting, film, TV show) that presumes a straight male audience. In watching a film we pause, and stare at the body of a women who typically refuses direct eye contact with the audience, her sexualized body turned mostly or completely to the camera. The audience meant to enjoy this sexualized spectacle is straight and male; the film assumes and creates a straight, male, normative audience. Women within the audience are forced to either assume the straight male perspective (damn, she’s hot!) or to remove themselves from direct interaction with the woman being portrayed: we watch ourselves (or one of us) being looked at.

    The opening shot of Alias’s Superbowl episode does precisely that. Sydney’s body is presented for the (straight, male) gaze to enjoy, and we can imagine the network executives asking Abrams and company to really sex it up for this blockbuster episode designed to show off Alias’s strengths while drawing in new audience.

    However, as the scene progress, Abrams’ (and director Jack Bender’s) obviously knowledge of these concepts and their refusal to pander to outmoded directives or misapprehensions of audience desire are made clear. They portray the stereotypical Superbowl audience: a man with his frères, eating starchy food and and watching the sexy Sydney Bristow, passing judgment. He is not portrayed positively, however: he is a lumpy man in a track suit who doesn’t know a good thing when he sees this. (And he’s French, which makes it difficult for the “average American Joe” to identify with him.)

    Abrams and Bender continue to undercut this outmoded conception of what Superbowl-watching guys would want by giving us what we—all viewers—really do want: Sydney refusing to be objectified, and refusing to be silently gazed-upon. Sydney’s third-wave feminism is aware of the gaze and removes its power from the (by now, stereotypical) imagined audience. She tricks the man into gazing upon her and objectifying her as a means to establishing his trust in her—a trust that comes from condescension. Underestimated, Sydney reveals an even sexier strength: force of will, a refusal to be objectified, and mad kickboxing skills.

  4. Part Two

    When Sydney forces the man to re-humanizer by emphasizing his overly picky nature and the general uncomfortableness of hypersexualized attire, she is on his back and he is facing the floor: she forces his gaze away from her, refusing to be gazed-upon. She speaks: “What was wrong with the black one?” That is: “Who are you to say I do not fulfill your abstruse standards?” She continues: “Do you think it’s comfortable, wearing clothes like this?” This rhetorical question is not meant to be answered, which takes away the power of speech from the listener and forces him to momentarily occupy the position of the uncomfortable, gazed-upon other: she demands sympathy if not empathy. “This isn’t my first day on the job” re-establishes Sydney’s position. No long a whore or “friend” (as Weiss later describes her alias), she is a competent working woman with a great deal of experience behind her, and evidently more experience than he has. The final line worth mentioning, “I disconnected your call button,” disarms the man even more, refusing him the power of speech and the power of his high-tech tools of dominance.

    Throughout this conversation, we see mostly Sydney’s face and a bit of the man being choked. But rather than submitting the sexualized body for the viewer’s pleasure, Alias has now effectively assumed and created a new audience: any gender, any orientation, and all enlightened enough to thoroughly take Sydney’s side in refusing to be co-opted by outmoded conceptions of female sexuality. The subsequent fight scene becomes more than the pleasure of watching a hot woman kick ass, and transforms into a subtly crafted way for the (any gender, any orientation) audience to strengthen their affiliation with Sydney.

  5. Part Three

    Although beautifully well done, “Phase One” is not the first TV episode to deconstruct the male gaze. But it might be the first one to have this much fun with it, particularly when we get yet another perspective on the events that open the show. Weiss and Vaughn provide Sydney with earrings that contain miniature cameras and microphones, and we discover in the second iteration of this scene precisely what this means: they are watching everything from Sydney’s perspective.

    The fat Frenchman was a portrayal of old-fashioned models of viewership. Weiss and Vaughn are representatives of the new masculinity: comfortable empathizing with the objectified woman, and encouraging her to do whatever she can to subvert that objectification. Their comments, too, are worth parsing:

    Weiss: “No man naturally smells as good as you do right now.” This line establishes the bromantic scene we are watching: men in a non-female space, speaking freely. Interestingly, it’s a bit of a dig at the metrosexual dandy-ish tendency. Feminism isn’t just for men who wear aftershave, that is. And Weiss is also established as the slightly-less-progressive person, as he does not have the romantic connection with Sydney that Vaughn does, and so doesn’t react as quickly to the way she is being gazed-upon.

    We see Weiss’s role as intermediary more clearly in the next exchange. Vaughn [in reaction to Sydney being told the red outfit is better]: “That son of a bitch.” Weiss: “Easy. C’mon.” He has not yet fully taken Sydney’s side, giving the audience someone to identify with if they’re not yet fully on Vaughn’s side. He tempers the feminism, at this point.

    Weiss: “No way that guy smells as good as you.” Vaughn: “Aftershave. I got new aftershave.” Weiss still sees the fat Frenchman as possibly threatening Vaughn’s romantic intentions towards Sydney. That is, Weiss imagines Vaughn’s disgust stems from Vaughn witnessing another man gazing on a woman that he wants to be his. In Weiss’s view, Sydney’s body is still an object here, being fought over (however unknowingly) by two different men. And—significantly—we can’t forget that while the camera shows us Sydney’s body (again), Vaughn and Weiss are only seeing what she sees.

  6. Part Four

    When Sydney garrotes the Frenchman, Vaughn nods his support, and Weiss looks at Vaughn. Weiss is simultaneously checking to make sure that his friend isn’t overreacting, and looking for clues about how to behave. For Weiss, this experience is one of bromantic viewing: two guys on the couch enjoying a violent film. Or the Superbowl. When Sydney elbows the Frenchman in the face, however, Weiss becomes fully invested in occupying Sydney’s point of view: both he and Vaughn laugh in delight at Sydney’s violence against her gazer. By the fight scene, they are as engaged as we are, rooting for Sydney, Monday-morning quarterbacking how she should get out of the situation, disapproving of “bad calls” and ultimately happy that Team Sydney has won.

    In case we weren’t entirely clear on the complicated nature of what Alias is encouraging in its viewers, the theme is emphasized on last time in Will’s and Francie’s conversation, in which they discuss whether or not someone is looking at Francie (y’know, in a sexy way). Objectification, that scene reminds us, takes places all the time. But the Wills, the Vaughns, and the Weisses of the world dismiss that objectification in favor of conversation and empathy.

    Part of Alias’s allure is Sydney’s sex appeal. Watching hot women do cool stuff sells. But the bigger appeal is the way that Alias refuses to reduce the audience experience to “watching hot women,” with an emphasis on the watching. In the first version of this scene, Alias undermines assumptions about what a post-Superbowl audience ought to want, and gives us what we really do. In the second version, it portrays a different model of masculinity, right down to emphasizing that the modern, enlightened man doesn’t gaze upon, but with, the woman to whom he is devoted and with whom he emphasizes.

  7. All that theorizing aside, this is a fabulous episode. It's remarkable how much it does, and how well it does all of it. It manages to wrap up a gigantic arc--heck, it wraps up the show's entire point!--while still making each relationship, and the stakes of each relationship, completely clear.

    Although Lena Olin didn't appear in this episode and some of the conflict between Sydney and Jack was minimized, every other character got just enough lines to make it clear precisely what was going on. And Dixon's conversation with his wife was a beautiful moment that the character, who has been rather under-served this season, very much deserved.

    I always enjoy episodes where sets are torn down, too, and watching the SD-6 offices turned into rubble was delightful.

    Above all, though, I appreciated the dialogue. Exposition had a point beyond exposition: people were exchanging information rather than repeating things we already knew. And there was a bit more wit than usual, thanks to Greg Gunberg and Sark. Sark's conversation with Sydney, which you highlighted Billie, was quite funny, and I like it when Alias allows their characters to have a bit of verbal fun.

    Props to Jack Bender's camera work, too. Scenes of CIA desk-trained employees at their computers could be quite dull, but he made use of the stedicam in a way that kept it interesting and vibrant.

    And that last scene! At first, Sloane's appearance seems convenient: it allows Sydney to kill the figurehead (Geiger) without actually killing off Ron Rifkin. But the reveal that he's been playing an even longer con than we realized, that he has known about Jack and Sydney, that he used that knowledge to take down the Alliance, and that he did it all with Sark's help (so that's what he was doing there!) is a brilliant reveal of a masterplan that, although unexpected, doesn't feel in the slightest like a ret-con.

  8. Josie, what a fascinating essay! Loved reading it, and you have added a whole new dimension to the best episode of one of my favorite shows.

    Thank you for posting this.

  9. Wow that was quite a read. Thanks Josie. You pulled back the layers on this amazing episode to show the masterpiece beneath.

    I completely agree about the exposition point you brought up. I VCRed this episode so that i can use it to hook my friends to Alias too so that my staying home on friday nights to watch it seemed less sad. And this episode actually did it. It made 3 of them go back and watch season 1 because of the amount of exposition it had all while pushing the series to new horizons.
    This is what a focused JJ Abrams is capable of. Whenever i saw episodes of the terrible six degrees or any of his other less than stellar shows, i used Alias to keep my faith in him.

  10. Mario, I agree completely! I mentioned in an earlier comments thread that Alias was really just the third TV show I'd watched as an adult, so I didn't realize how good it was. Now that I'm watching it with a lot more TV-watching (and reviewing) experience, I'm astonished by not just my emotional connection to the characters, but just how well made it is, with such artistry.

  11. Really interesting stuff Josie! I love reading things like this, where there are so many layers I didn't get, and then can appreciate it so much more!

    Josie said: "I mentioned in an earlier comments thread that Alias was really just the third TV show I'd watched as an adult, so I didn't realize how good it was. Now that I'm watching it with a lot more TV-watching (and reviewing) experience, I'm astonished by not just my emotional connection to the characters, but just how well made it is, with such artistry".
    I was the same, I grew up as a young teen watching Alias, Buffy and Angel, so no wonder everything pales in comparison these days!

    Although this episode is so great it would be perfect to attract a new audience, I can't help but feel it would really spoil the earlier episodes for someone, the entire SD-6 premise would seem trivial when you know what's going to happen, rather than being the entire series' premise that is shockingly turned upside down in this episode, for those who watched from the start.

  12. Josie -- I've been thinking about your essay on and off all day. Completely intriguing. As a result, I downloaded the 'Visual Pleasure' essay. Not an easy read by any means, but fascinating. And, when one considers that it was written 37 years ago, even more so.

    I re-watched the episode over dinner. You absolutely nailed it. The scenes on the plane have now taken on an entirely different, and much more interesting, dimension than they ever had in the past.

    I had forgotten that Will gets one 'real' kiss. I was so pleased by that. And speaking of kisses -- worth the wait, I say!

  13. ChrisB, hooray for Mulvey! I can't say enough good things about John Berger's Ways of Seeing, which is the far more accessible version of many of these ideas, with many examples. It's a delightful and fun book.

  14. One step ahead of you, Josie. I ordered the book and Amazon (without whom my discretionary income would go much farther!) will be delivering it on Friday. I'll let you know how I get on with it.

    Thanks again for a great, great read.

  15. Josie -- I sat down this morning with Ways of Seeing and didn't get up until I had finished it. What a fascinating read.

    While all seven of the essays were brilliant, by far the most interesting was the one that you reference in your article. Not only did I enjoy the man (surveyor) v. woman (surveyed) argument, but the discussion of nakedness v. the nude was mind bending. I read it through three times, each time just being amazed at the simple reality of it all.

    Thank you again for suggesting the article and the book. Both are definitely worth the read.

  16. Poor Francie! She didn't even lived to learn that Sydney was a spy, that's so sad! Love Alias.

  17. Hey, Laura Mulvey! I love that essay. So many classes over the years (in which various shirtless men were used to discuss the female or homoerotic gaze and the difference between, all in the name of academia of course ;) ) I went to a paper given by Mulvey last year, it was really interesting.

    Gotta say, I was not expecting that! I know Abrams likes to re-tool his shows but wow... I guess I should stop complaining about Fringe huh?! I just hope he realises Star Trek fans tend to like a bit more stability than that...

  18. This episode is the perfect example of how being shown another way of seeing things sticks with you. I re-watched it this morning and all I could think about was Josie's essay.

    Thanks again! The episode was already excellent; now it is at a whole other level.

  19. Oh yes, the 747 episode that totally blew my mind. I'm talking about the fight and the decompression of the plane; the sexy lingerie was distracting LOL.

    Seriously, I must have watched that scene half a dozen times.

    I've barely put comments on Alias over here; I should have. Brilliant show. I really love what J.J. gives us...

  20. Josie... Thank you for the great analysis! I have seen this episode many times, but in the past I've focused on the development of Sydney's character. This time it's all about relationships.

    Syd and Jack - It doesn't matter what bad things Jack has done. Syd loves her dad. That was well established here, when she broke down. Syd wasn't worried about her, but she was scared for her dad.

    Syd and Dixon - Shed finally gets to tell him the truth and it shatters his world. I LOVE the phone call he made to his wife. Dixon is a good man, which Sydney has known all along. Unfortunately, their relationship may be permanently damaged. Can he forgive her?

    Syd and Sloane - He knew she and Jack were doubles? Yikes! What is going on there?

    Syd and Vaughn - I loved their conversation in the hallway. They tell each other they love each other without using the words (they've gotten good at that). When Kendall announces that Sloane has taken off, Vaughn's first reaction is concern for Sydney. So glad they can finally be together!


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